It was 1969, my last year of grad school. We’d been married a few months. Pete was ten years older than me. I hadn’t yet figured out the role I was supposed to play with his two kids. His divorce papers were still wet, and we were flat broke. Based on the alimony settlement this condition could last indefinitely. Those birth control pills I’d been depending on for years started to wreak havoc with my skin. Dark patches of pigmentation, they called it “the mask of pregnancy” began forming around my eyes – kind of like a raccoon – it was caused by the high level of hormones in those pills. Back then, in the 1950s and 60s when doctors first started prescribing the little pink pills in the round plastic disc, taken daily, every month for 28 days, they had no idea what a safe hormone level was – so we “early adopters” were like guinea pigs. My doctor was reluctant to admit that the pills were causing my condition, but some of the first reports leaked to the press were pretty scary, so I’d quit the pill and switched to other means of protection, usually a condom.
Life was speeding along, going to school, working in my studio (I was a Fine Arts major at Boston University) getting ready for my thesis exhibition, teaching oil painting and drawing to adults at night when – WHAMO!!! I’m pregnant. Holy shit. I can’t believe it. I can’t accept it. We were trying to prevent it. We can’t afford it. I’m just a kid myself. I don’t want kids. I’d be a lousy mother.
Pete loved me, and he loved kids and would have dealt with the pregnancy if I’d wanted it, but he also knew our struggle would be all that more difficult. I figured I’d get an abortion. I hadn’t looked into anything like this before; there was no need till now. I took for granted I could just go to my doctor and ask for one. After all, this was Boston, a liberal college town, not Appalachia. We’d been marching in the streets for our rights, for civil rights, for woman’s rights, and against an insidious Vietnam War. Some friends of mine were working on a booklet titled “Women and Their Bodies.” It was the precursor to what ultimately became the progressive women’s health care bible, “Our Bodies Ourselves.” We woman were strong, owners of our bodies and our destiny, Right? Wrong! It was 1970 and abortion was not being done, legally, anywhere in Massachusetts. Was I stupid to assume I had control over my body? I panicked. There was only a very brief window of opportunity here, and decisions have to be made that can change your life FOREVER! My husband Pete, in deference to my urging started asking around, discretely, among his college educated colleagues if anyone could help us. A friend of his knew about a clinic on some island (I think it was the Dominican Republic, my recall is fuzzy on some of the specifics) offshore somewhere. I’d have to fly there, it was so expensive, I was scared and in a torrent of conflicting emotions decided this option was out of the question, no way.
Mila, a former college roommate and friend, was a nurse working in a hospital in Philadelphia. When I called her in desperation for advice she related the dispiriting facts, “Cynthia, I know abortions are done under the radar in my hospital, but only for residents of Pennsylvania and only under very special circumstances. You have to apply to the hospital review board. It includes several doctors and a psychiatrist. After applying, you go home and wait till they call you with the verdict.” Mila had the inside scoop and she said the only women approved for abortions in that hospital were the ones who appeared to be totally nuts, who presented a clear, unambiguous danger to themselves and potentially to the child should they have one. I decided to give it a try.
A true friend, Mila let me use her home address as my residence in my application request to the hospital. My husband Pete had obligations at work so I took the Amtrak train down to Philly and stayed with her for a few days between submitting the application and being called before the review board. I was sweating bullets that day which was helpful. I knew this would have to be the performance of my life. I’d done some theater in high school, got a standing ovation once in the senior play. I knew I could freak out on queue.
It’s difficult recalling exactly what happened. I’d refrained from food and water for two days. Sleep was optional. I literally drove myself crazy. Mila had taken the day off to drive me to the hospital for the interview. There is a black hole in my memory bank about what exactly occurred in that room that day. There are snapshots that flash on the wall of my brain like a slide show of stills projected on a blank screen surrounded by darkness. I remember a strong male in scrubs, half leading, half carrying me out of the sterile, sparsely furnished conference room where I had been seated, alone, on a straight-back armless chair, in front of the all-male hospital board. We were separated by a long, nondescript, table. Each stern-faced man held a clipboard. The room was brightly, almost blindingly lit. I’m not sure if the lights were trained on me or if it was natural light from the windows that ran floor to ceiling behind my interrogators. I had been questioned and they were done with me. Led to a waiting room, exhausted, dry mouthed and dazed, I sat down next to Mila who was eager to hear how I did. I had no idea what they thought of my case. After some much needed food and drink at her apartment, I took the train back to Boston that evening and waited. Mila told me if my abortion was approved they would call when a bed became available and I would have 24 hours to show up or lose my chance. Guess they’d offer the bed to the next poor panicked woman in line.
Back in Boston I was at work when I got the message there had been a call from my friend in Philly. This must be it. I snuck out of my office like a criminal plotting a prison break to make the call on the pay phone in the hall. My hands shook as I dialed her number.
“Get your butt down here now. They’ve got a bed for you, and we’ve got to get you to the hospital.”
I thought I would faint. No time to get in touch with Pete who was out of town on business (this was long before the age of cell phones). Mind on speed dial, I’ve got to get to the airport and catch a flight, I’ll take the shuttle – will there be a seat? I made up a story – something like my grandmother’s on her deathbed – for the folks at the office as I stumbled out the door, raced home on autopilot, threw some clothes in a backpack and took a cab to Logan Airport. I got a seat on the next Boston/Philly Shuttle. Mila met me at the terminal exit and we drove straight from the airport to the hospital. I checked in, hugged Mila good-bye before I was hustled up an elevator, led to a room, handed one of those open in the back hospital gowns, and directed to a bed. There was no discussion about what would happen, how it would happen or why I was there. My “precarious mental state” must’ve been part of my file. I was never addressed directly by the doctor or the nurses. It’s as though they considered me a helpless child, an hysteric, or perhaps just incompetent. I owed it all to my superb acting ability. I only wanted it over. I was given some anesthetic, lights out. I awoke a few hours later. A doctor was standing over me, looking down distractedly as if I would simply disappear. He handed me a one-page sheet of instructions to follow in case there was any bleeding. In a voice devoid of feeling, and not inviting any further questions from me, he said matter-of-factly, “You can get dressed and go home.” Now I am a well-worn woman of 72. I ultimately became a mother and a grandmother of two delightful girls. Our Bodies Ourselves has been in continuous publication since 1970 informing women about our physical selves at every age. It is with great trepidation tinged with disbelief as I see the rights to make decisions about our own bodies, our health, and our future that we women have fought so desperately to achieve, slowly erode, eaten away little by little, by old demons that refuse to die. In the Emmy Award winning The Handmaids Tale the magnificent Canadian writer Margaret Atwood captured a dystopian American future where women are property of the state and fertile women were highly valued and in short supply. This future seems only a hairs-breath away should we lack the collective will to resist a slide backward to a very dark time.
About the Author, Cynthia Close
Armed with an MFA from Boston University Cynthia plowed her way through several productive careers in the arts including instructor in drawing and painting, Dean of Admissions at The Art Institute of Boston, founder of ARTWORKS Consulting, and president of Documentary Educational Resources – a nonprofit film distribution company. She now claims to be a writer. In addition… To support this claim, she is a contributing editor for Documentary Magazine and writes regularly about art, cinema, and culture for, Artist’s Magazine, Art & Object, Pastel Journal, Watercolor Artist, Art New England, and formerly for Vermont Woman and Professional Artist Magazine. Her creative non-fiction appeared in the 2014, 2016, and 2017 anthology The Best of the Burlington Writers Workshop. Her essays have been published in various literary journals including 34th Parallel, Across the Margin, Adelaide, AGNI, The American Writers Review, Bacopa Literary Review, The Black and White Anthology, Blood and Bourbon, The Brooklyn Film Arts Nonfiction Prize finalist, The Chicago Quarterly, From Whispers to Roars, HerStry, Longridge Review, Montana Mouthful, Neon, Orson’s Review, Pangyrus, The San Antonio Review, The Seasons of Our Lives, Swallow Press, The Twisted Vine, Wagon Bridge Press, Woven Tales Press, among others. She has read publicly at many venues including the Cornelia Street Café in NYC. She was the inaugural art editor for the literary and art journal Mud Season Review launched in 2014. Cynthia has completed Carnal Conversations (97,000-words) a memoir told through intensely intimate observations often laced with ironic humor as this escapee from 1950’s nuclear family life finds herself at forty near the Austria/Hungarian border living on Friedrichshof, a radical artists commune where the nuclear family has been banned and couple relationships are anathema. She was the last person to be admitted to the commune just as the AIDS scare peaked. While she searches for an agent, she continues to live and write in Burlington, Vermont two blocks from Bernie Sanders.
A large sample of previously published work can be found on her website: www.cynthiaclose.com You can follow her on twitter: @cynthiaclose
Supporting Reproductive Rights
This is a critical time in our fight to preserve access to abortion and reproductive healthcare. We believe that every action counts. Here are three things you can do.
- Fight stigmatization by sharing your story and/or supporting people who have shared their stories. Supportive comments and likes make a big difference to the people who have chosen to share their personal experiences.
- Reach out to your representatives on the federal, state, and local levels and tell them that you want them to pass legislation that protects reproductive rights including abortion access.
- Donate to organizations committed to protecting access to safe and legal abortions. This writer recommended Planned Parenthood for the work they are doing to ensure access.